Why host a conference on the supernatural in contemporary society?

On 23rd and 24th August 2018, we will be hosting a new conference called, Supernatural in Contemporary Society (SCSC). The conference will be held at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, and aims to provide a platform to discuss the continuing role of the supernatural, and its value to culture, heritage and tourism. I am hugely excited to host the conference and we have two excellent key note speakers lined up – Dr David Clarke and Professor Dennis Waskul. However, why host such a conference? And why focus on contemporary issues?

The inspiration to host SCSC came predominantly from the fascinating body of research that exists out there on the supernatural in a range of contexts. I have, however, often found it difficult with my own research to find a ‘home’ for it. There are obvious homes for research in the realms of parapsychology with conferences such as the Annual Convention of Parapsychological Association or the SPR Annual Conference. There are also some fascinating projects and conferences available for those that explore the supernatural in the realms of literature and folklore – see for instance the excellent conferences hosted this year as part of the Supernatural Cities and the Open Graves, Open Minds projects. Networks such as Exploring the Extraordinary have also provided opportunities to explore extraordinary experiences in a range of subject areas. However, there is not a clear home for research that explores the supernatural in everyday contexts such as tourism, events, heritage, media, and as a profession. Additionally, there seemed to be an opportunity to host a conference that could explore links between subject areas and potentially promote cross-disciplinary working. After recently writing a chapter for a new book, The Supernatural in Society, Culture and History (by Dennis Waskul and Marc Eaton), it became clear that there was value to be had in making these links across research topics. As such, a conference that invites research from a range of scholars has the potential to provide interesting insights and opportunities for future research directions.

The supernatural also continues to be a prominent feature in our modern world. However, we are often focused on ‘why’ this is rather than considering the value and impact it may have. Looking at contemporary issues of the supernatural in everyday society may allow us to explore these issues further. In addition to academic papers, the conference will also invite short case study presentations and posters from industry, and host an industry workshop with heritage organisations to consider the value and impact of the supernatural for tourism. Heritage organisations are increasingly using ghostly stories and supernatural legends to promote their sites . For instance, the recently opened Peterhead Prison is already hosting overnight ghost hunts and ghost walks, and the National Trust regularly promote their ghosts to attract visitors. A conference that focuses on contemporary contexts (such as heritage), explores links between research and industry, and is forward thinking in terms of future research and projects, should be beneficial for scholars, organisations and those with a general interest in the topic.

SCSC therefore intends to provide a platform for sharing research across disciplines, exploring areas for new research directions and developing networks for academic and applied projects, and discovering what the value and impact of the supernatural is within contemporary society. If you have an interest in the supernatural, have research you would like to share or have case study examples to discuss with our delegates we would be delighted to see you there!

You can find out more about the conference and the Call for Papers here – http://www.rgu.ac.uk/scsc

You can also follow us on our Twitter (@SCSC2018) and Facebook.





8 Tips for Talking Ghosts: The Media

Ghosts don’t frighten me…but the media does!

Today I attended a workshop run by Women in Journalism Scotland who do some excellent work training, mentoring and encouraging women in the media. I took part not because I am a journalist but because if I’m honest the media makes me a little nervous. My nerves are not necessarily about appearing on camera, giving an interview on air or being quoted in an article, I have done some of those things before. You see what unnerves me is the context…my area of expertise is the paranormal, and that comes with baggage!

It’s a hugely frustrating piece of baggage (the kind where you take your holdall and after hours of lugging it around train stations and airports wish you had purchased a wheely bag…but also kind of know that a wheely bag doesn’t get you to the same exciting places as one you can carry, adventure-like, on your shoulder…). Its frustrating because I know I am knowledgeable in my field, I have been involved in the area for over 10 years and received a PhD in the topic. I also know that there are some really interesting and engaging conversations to have and although I am comfortable talking to peers, colleagues and my students about it I still find myself  nervous of having such conversations through the media. The paranormal unfortunately is a topic ‘haunted’ by its past, and current popularisation. It has a history of sensationalised cases that have hit the media and then turned out to be either fake or misunderstood. In recent years the rise of paranormal TV, film and representation on social media has left its scars and the paranormal has found its place in entertainment rather than perceived as a serious topic of research. The question of “is it real?” and “do you believe?” has dominated debate and opinion, and those who research the area are often considered ghostbusters regardless of their focus. It’s credibility as a discipline is, perhaps understandably, sometimes questioned.

This is a shame. There are some fascinating studies that explore the Supernatural and it’s role in our society beyond questions of belief or existence (not that these are bad questions!). However, I fear that like myself some people will be nervous about sharing this research with the public through the media. I am an academic, and I understand that whatever opinion I give or research I share reflects on my academic credibility, as well as the University I represent. I am nervous that the newspaper headline will read Ghostbuster Lecturer…or an interview will be accompanied by spooky sound effects in the background…the usual clichés. However, after attending the event today I have realised something – the only way to tackle this issue is for experts in this area to lead the way and shape the conversation.

I raised my concerns at the event today to a panel of journalists and explained my area of expertise and why I was concerned. It was lovely to see the excitement that this kind of topic brings when people hear that the paranormal is your area of study – I encounter it quite a lot and this is positive! They sympathised with my plight but also provided some good tips (for both this topic and more generally) that I thought would be useful to share. This advice is from industry professionals working in the media and journalism, and whilst I am yet to try these out, I hope they will be useful for others considering sharing their research.

8 Tips for Talking Ghosts (or indeed anything else…)

1. Do your research into the publication/ media outlet. Tabloids are likely to sensationalise and there may be specific media outlets that work with your topic (for instance my research into haunted heritage may receive a better write up with someone like BBC History).

2. Be honest and communicate the parameters you would like to talk within. If you are not comfortable talking about an area raise this in advance, a good journalist will adhere to this. This it seems is particularly important in the paranormal world – I often find that everyone assumes you are a parapsychologist in the field, and often ask psychology based questions, even if this is not your area of study.

3. Ask for either the questions or general ‘jist’ of the interview in advance. Again, most journalists should at least be able to give you a feel for the direction of the interview.

4. Prepare. Particularly think of any challenging questions that could be asked and how you will respond.

5. Don’t feel that you have to answer everything. If you are unsure be honest and explain in the interview that this is not your area of expertise.

6. Think about what the key message is you want to communicate and make sure you get this across. Interviews may be short or cut off quickly so you want to get your ‘sound bite’ in when you can.

7. You can say no. If your not comfortable doing the interview or with the outlet it will be published in you can say no, other opportunities are likely to arise.

8. Be proactive. If you want to be a spokesperson for your area of research seek out opportunities in places you would like your voice to be heard.

I hope these tips are useful. I certainly found the sessions helpful, and will be using this advice in the future if media opportunities arise. Please do feel free to discuss any experiences you have had with the media and paranormal below, or indeed share your own advice on the topic.


Ghosts exist…what now?

This week I came across the Sir Noface documentary currently touring America. Led by Chad Calek, a well-known paranormal investigator and filmmaker, the documentary claims to provide definitive proof of ghosts – in the form of a full apparition appearing on camera. As always I remain sceptical of this claim, particularly following the commercialised manner in which it appears to be being presented to the public – sell out tours including a range of ticket packages, a documentary film which I am sure will come with a price tag, merchandise etc. Surely, one would assume, if you had dedicated your life to paranormal research and you truly believe you have finally found proof of ghosts you would share far and wide? Open up the footage to further analysis? Invite other researchers and scientists along to discuss the merit and implications of such a find? Furthermore, the recent claim by Most Haunted to have captured a ghost on camera – which looks suspiciously like a poor attempt at a video overlay of Stuart accompanied by some pretty terrible acting – has left a sour taste for such claims. I do, however, like to remain open-minded and I can’t help but feel curious both about the footage itself, and why it is being revealed the way that it is…

It did get me thinking though – what if it was real? What if after all these years someone finally did have unequivocal evidence that ghosts exist? In the world of paranormal research we are often pre-occupied with the question – “do ghosts exist?”. However, we rarely stop to think what would happen if they do, and I think it is worth some thought.

So let’s pretend for a moment that proof is finally presented that ghosts, that is spirits of the dead, are real. What might it mean for…ghosthome

Our day-to-day lives…what if that bump in the night could actually be a ghost? Or you potentially share your home with a phantom lodger? Would you suddenly feel more self conscious having a shower or walking around in your undies? Perhaps we would think more about the history of our homes when we buy them and along with questions about woodworm and damp spots, we might also ask if it is haunted.

Research…at current paranormal research is considered to be at the fringes of an ‘acceptable’ research topic. However, I imagine this would change. Perhaps University departments such as the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes (CSAPP) at the University of Northampton, Anomalous Experience Research Unit (AERU) at the University of York or the Koestler Unit at the University of Edinburgh would become popular research centres. The potential for funding would likely increase and as such new centres of research, courses in the paranormal and research projects may emerge. And new questions may be on the agenda. Instead of investigating if such phenomena exists, we might be considering what ghosts are? What their existence means? How can we study/ understand them further?

Religion and belief…what would it mean for religion? I imagine for some that proof of ghosts would be considered proof of a soul, and therefore an afterlife. As in most cases, the existence of ghosts would likely be interpreted in different ways by different faiths and I guess others would use it to solidify their own belief systems. Some may deny the evidence, and others may set up new religious groups based on it.

Business…in previous posts I have discussed the commercialisation of ghosts. Part of the draw to forms of ghost tourism is the ‘possibility’ of ghosts and the desire to be enchanted by such experiences. However, what if the ‘possibility’ is taken away? Would the business of ghosts lose the intrigue that makes its so appealing? Would the prospect that we are potentially living with ghosts on a daily basis take a way from the desire to go ‘seeking’ them? Or on the other hand would it encourage the commercialisation of ghosts further – perhaps mediums and psychics would feel justified, and ghost hunts would be more popular because the experiences are suddenly more authentic. I also wonder if there may be ethical implications…I can imagine groups being set up to protect the rights of ghosts, or certifications being required to be a genuinely haunted location or for working in the field.

Death…and what might it mean for our inevitability? Would it alleviate our fear of death to know that something exists beyond? And how would I feel if I thought my loved ones might be ghosts? I guess to some extent this may raise more questions. When I spoke to my husband about this he said it might be quite good as being a ghost you could possibly travel around the world visiting places you could not in life – and I guess that would be pretty cool. At the same time, what if you or a loved one was trapped, as we often perceive ghosts to be. This must be a lonely existence and actually the thought of this is potentially more upsetting than not knowing at all (I notice a new film is soon coming out exploring this issue from the ghosts perspective – A Ghost Story).

I am sure there would be plenty more questions and implications of ghosts existing, but after considering this possibility briefly one certainty is that it seems to raise more questions than answers.  And maybe this makes the need to question proof all the more important and perhaps if, one day, proof really is established we should consider how such evidence is introduced to the world…